How to give your 2012 or 2014 Mac mini a performance boost by replacing the hard drive wit...

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in Current Mac Hardware edited January 31
Apple's refresh to the Mac mini may have caused some owners of earlier generations to be envious of the performance compared to their existing Mac. One potential upgrade to give the older models a speed boost is to switch out the mechanical hard drive for an SSD, a task that isn't as hard to do as people may think.




Apple introduced a new model of the Mac mini in late 2018, bringing the compact Mac up to date with new processor options and a more environmentally friendly casing, among other changes. One important shift for the line is the move away from offering the Mac mini with a hard drive, as all new models eschew the spinning storage medium for solid state versions, even in the cheapest models.

Owners of earlier models may look at the new versions with a tinge of envy, especially if their Mac mini uses a mechanical hard drive. Replacing that very drive with an SSD makes for a relatively sensible upgrade, offering faster accessing of applications and files, as well as potentially helping alleviate constrained memory issues by offering faster swap file usage.

Switching to an SSD could give a Mac mini a new lease of life, but at the same time it seems like a daunting prospect. The Mac mini is so small, and the drive buried under so many components in a hard-to-access location, that most will be turned off from the idea completely.

The speed boost an SSD provides over a hard drive is certainly worth the effort for some people, with data transfers taking place at a multiple-times faster speed than with the mechanical spinning drive.

Blackmagicdesign's Disk Speed Tool on one writer's old Mac mini drive (above) then with the SSD (below)
Blackmagicdesign's Disk Speed Tool on one writer's old Mac mini drive (above) then with the SSD (below)


Recently, two AppleInsider writers went through that very same process on the 2012 and 2014 models of Mac mini. While it can take a few hours for the uninitiated, it isn't too difficult for the average user to perform, and requires relatively few tools to accomplish.

Before disassembly

Ensure that you wish to perform the process before you actually proceed, as the last thing you want to do is have an unusable Mac mini after a few hours of work. If you are uncomfortable with taking your Mac apart, consider enlisting someone more technically minded to make the change on your behalf.

Also, in the event that you acquired a Mac mini just before the new models were announced, be wary that there may be existing guarantees and warranties, such as AppleCare, which may still apply to the device. If extra warranty coverage still applies to the Mac mini in question, consider avoiding the upgrade until after it runs out.

Cloning the drive

Before anyone picks up a screwdriver and takes apart their Mac mini, the first main task is to make a copy of the drive, cloning its contents over to the new SSD. Regardless of model, it is advised to do this in advance to make sure the new drive is actually fit for purpose before it is installed.

If you want to, this is also an opportunity to start with a fresh installation of macOS, but given the hassle of getting everything set up again after reinstallation, it's probably worth avoiding this if possible.

For this, you need your new SSD, a USB enclosure or a USB-to-SATA cable, and an application called Carbon Copy Cloner. You should pay for Carbon Copy Cloner, as it is an invaluable tool. But, it is also possible to accomplish what you need to do with the free version.

The new SSD and the USB-to-SATA cable for data transfers
The new SSD and the USB-to-SATA cable for data transfers


Install Carbon Copy Cloner on your Mac mini. Attach the enclosure or cable-connected SSD to the Mac mini, via USB. Once connected, open up Disk Utility located in the Utilities folder within the Applications folder.

Select the external drive in the left-hand column, right click, and select Erase. This is being performed just in case there are any files left on the SSD if it isn't brand new and unused.

In the window, enter a new appropriate name for the drive, preferably one that is slightly different from your Mac's existing drive for the purposes of telling them apart, select APFS as the format, and the Scheme as GUID Partition Map. Click Erase then Done.

  • Erasing the new SSD in Disk Utility before cloning the drive
  • The completion screen in Disk Utility once erasure has completed on the SSD


Open up Carbon Copy Cloner, and set a new task up to copy data from one drive to the other. For the source, select your Mac's hard drive, while for the destination, select the externally-connected SSD. Click Clone.

  • Selecting the drives in Carbon Copy Cloner
  • The settings used by one AppleInsider writer for their cloning process
  • Carbon Copy Cloner will require the installation of extra tools, or else it won't clone the drive properly


A prompt to install "CCC's Privileged Helper Tool" will appear. Accept it to start the process, which could take a few hours depending on the amount of data that needs to be transferred.

Once the clone is completed, test that it works by restarting your Mac mini and hold the Option key on the keyboard. You will see a list of connected drives that macOS thinks it can boot from.

The boot drive selection screen of the Mac mini, showing the original drive, a Time Machine drive, and the replacement SSD
The boot drive selection screen of the Mac mini, showing the original drive, a Time Machine drive, and the replacement SSD


Select the external SSD to continue the booting process from the new drive. After you have verified macOS loads fine and everything is working from the new drive, shut down macOS and disconnect the Mac mini from power and all other connected items.

Disassembly - Late 2014 Mac Mini

The tools you will need to take apart the Late 2014 Mac mini are: TR6 Torx Security and T8 Torx screwdrivers, a logic board removal tool, guitar picks or a plastic disassembly tool known as a "spudger," and a pair of tweezers. You may also want some other non-conductive items for poking and prying, such as chopsticks, depending on how you would prefer to work.

Have a way of collecting together the screws and tiny components you will be pulling from the Mac mini. This could be a container, such as an icecube tray, or an upturned strip of duct tape attached to the table could be used as a sticky storage point.

Stick the screws in rows to an upturned strip of duct tape allows you to know what's next to use when reassembling your Mac mini
Stick the screws in rows to an upturned strip of duct tape allows you to know what's next to use when reassembling your Mac mini


As discovered in the process of deconstruction, there is likely to be dust inside the Mac mini, Have tissues, canned air, or other cleaning supplies safe for use on hardware on standby.

First, turn the Mac mini upside down, preferably on a towel or a surface that won't scratch its finish. Use a prying tool to gently lift up the bottom cover, until it can be lifted clean off.

Popping the bottom cover off the Mac mini
Popping the bottom cover off the Mac mini


Use the TR6 driver to take out the six screws holding the metal antenna plate to the rest of the chassis. Once unfastened, carefully lift it off but keep it nearby as there is a cable attached. Follow the cable to the Airport card, use the T6 driver on the screw and washer to free the cable, and use a prying tool to lift the connector straight off the card. Leave the other cables in place.

  • There are six screws holding the bottom plate down
  • The antenna cable keeps the bottom plate attached to the Mac mini
  • The antenna cable is attached to the right-hand connector of the Airport card


Move attention to the fan assembly, and unfasten the three T6 screws holding it to the casing. Lift the fan straight up to remove the captive screw, but don't take the fan completely off, as again it is connected by wires.

Find the small connector for the fan and lift it straight out of its socket. You may have to apply a little pressure to the cables from underneath using a prying tool. Once free, remove the fan from the casing completely.

  • Three screws hold the fan in place
  • The connector powering and controlling the fan needs to be disconnected
  • Using a plastic spudger to disconnect the fan's connector


Next, take out a T6 screw near to the SATA cable connector, close to the front of the Mac mini, which is used to hold a bracket securing the cable in the connector. Once the bracket is removed, use a prying tool again to gently lift the cable off the socket.

Moving right (if the rear of the Mac mini is facing you), find the IR sensor cable connector and remove it using a prying tool to lift it straight up.

  • Unscrewing and removing the securing bracket for the SATA cable connector
  • Taking off the connector that leads from the Mac mini's logic board to the SATA drive
  • Pulling up the IR sensor cable from its connection


There is one more T6 screw to remove, and it is located on the bottom left of the logic board, close to the rear of the casing.

Now for a major point: separating the logic board assembly from the rest of the case. For this, insert the logic board removal tool which is little more than a bent metal rod into the two holes as far down as it can go, then gently pull the top "handle" section towards you. Stop when the prying tool comes into contact with the case, and remove the tool.

On the right-hand side of the logic board is the power cables, which need to be pulled out from the socket. Once disconnected, carefully slide the logic board assembly out of the Mac mini's rear side.

  • Inserting the logic board removal tool into its two holes
  • Pull the logic board removal tool towards the edge of the case and remove
  • Disconnect the power from the logic board assembly before fully extracting it


To remove the power supply, extract the metal clip holding the AC connection in place, then rotate the AC connection roughly 90 degrees counterclockwise to make it come out of its slot. Remove one more T6 screw holding the power supply in place, then slide the entire power supply out.

  • Turning the power supply's connector 90 degrees allows it to be removed
  • The last screw holding the power supply in place
  • The power supply, freed from the Mac mini


We have now reached the drive assembly. Take out the T6 screw from the left-hand side and pull the drive tray out.

Remove the four T8 screws on each side of the hard drive, then lift it up from the tray. Raise the ribbon cable of the SATA connector, take off the black tape, and pull the connector off completely. Finally, take off the two black square pads off the old drive and place them in the same locations on the SSD.

  • Removing screws holding the drive tray in place
  • Extracting the drive assembly from the Mac mini
  • A few screws holds the drive in the drive assembly
  • Apple added tape to keep the SATA connector in place on the drive
  • Remember to move the two small squares across to the new drive

Reassembly

For the most part, this process is effectively the reverse of disassembly, but there are a few points worth noting.

First, don't worry about placing the black tape to hold the SATA connector in place. You could add new tape of your own, but it isn't really necessary considering the tray's construction.

When placing the drive and SATA connector into the tray, make sure to slot the ribbon through the small hole in the tray beforehand. Also, be wary of the rubber seals where each of the four drive screws are located, as they can fall out if pressure is applied.

You will be able to tell the power supply is reinserted correctly because the AC connector has a large notch that slides into a groove inside the case, acting as an extra locking point when the connector is twisted back into its correct orientation.

Sliding the logic board back into the casing does not require the tool used for extraction, but don't push it all the way in until you reconnect the power to it.

The logic board assembly, outside the Mac mini
The logic board assembly, outside the Mac mini


It is much easier to reconnect things like the IR sensor cable and the fan connections, as they can only go one way into the socket, and can easily be pressed in with a finger once seated.

When getting the antenna cable put back into place, it is far easier to attach it to the Airport card before screwing the bracket into place. There is also less of a need to try and fit the cable in tidily when placing the plate on, though it may be worth tucking it in a bit beforehand.

Lastly, the plastic base can be reapplied, but notably placement is important otherwise it won't fit correctly. An easy way to line it up is to have the back of the Mac mini towards you and to orient the base so the words Mac mini are easily readable from left to right.

Disassembly - 2012 Mac Mini

The process to take apart the earlier 2012 generation of the Mac mini is largely similar to that of the Late 2014 version, and uses practically the same collection of tools.

To start with, remove the bottom panel, though this time it can be done without extra tools. Place your thumbs in the depressed thumb holes on the panel and apply opposing pressure to rotate the panel counter-clockwise, until the white dot aligns with the outlined dot on the enclosure, then lift the panel off.


Removing the bottom panel is easier with the two thumb holes
Removing the bottom panel is easier with the two thumb holes


Using a T6 Torx screwdriver, remove the two screws holding the fan in place, located on the top two corners, near the antenna plate. Lift the fan carefully, and pull the connector for the attached cable free from the rest of the assembly. Remove the Fan.

  • Taking out the fan using a T6 Torx screwdriver
  • Extracting the fan from the Mac mini


Assuming the ports are pointed towards you, on the bottom left is a single T6 screw holding a curved piece of cowling. Remove the screw, then rotate the cowling towards the end nearest the antenna plate.

  • Unscrewing the cowling before removing the antenna plate
  • Extracting the curved cowling


Next, to remove the metal antenna plate, take out the four T8 screws as well as the connector on the left-hand side, below the plate. Use a spudger or another prying tool to disconnect the connector, then remove the plate itself.

  • The antenna plate requires four T8 screws to be removed and a connector
  • The metal antenna plate lifts straight up once the screw are removed
  • Again, there's an antenna cable keeping the antenna plate connected to the rest of the Mac mini


Again, it is time to disconnect both the IR sensor and hard drive connections from the logic board. Just as earlier, use a prying tool to carefully release the connections, with special attention due for the IR sensor connector.

  • Disconnection is easier done with a spudger
  • Sometimes a thin and pointy tool is needed to get to the smaller and harder to reach connectors


Another three more screws, a T8 and two T6 screws towards the bottom of the housing, can be removed from the logic board. At this point, you can use the logic board removal tool to slide out the board from the enclosure, but in this instance, don't pull it all the way, as there are cables still attached.

  • Taking the last screws off the housing to remove the logic board
  • The logic board is able to be slid out at this point
  • Sliding the logic board out the back of the Mac mini


The hard drive should now be accessible from the front area of the Mac mini's cavity, which can be slid towards you then up to be freed.

Pulling the drive out is possible after sliding the logic board assembly out a small amount
Pulling the drive out is possible after sliding the logic board assembly out a small amount


Remove the tape holding the connector in place, detach it, and attach it to the new drive. At the same time, transfer any other items across to the new drive, including the cover and the mounting screws.

  • Untaping the SATA connector from the old drive
  • The SATA connector can be attached to the new drive without Apple's tape


As with the 2014 Mac mini, now is the time to reassemble your Mac by reversing the disassembly steps.

Shopping list

Ready to tackle a drive switch? Here's a quick shopping list to get you started: Prefer to opt for a new Mac mini with an SSD already installed? Apple authorized resellers are knocking up to $50 off 2018 Mac mini models with free shipping.
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 31
    Chris HedlundChris Hedlund Posts: 3unconfirmed, member
    Good tutorial. I've done this with 3 or 4 Mac Minis. Makes a big difference...
    SnickersMagoo
  • Reply 2 of 31
    Good tutorial. I've done this with 3 or 4 Mac Minis. Makes a big difference...
    I also done the same to several Mac Minis.  It's easy to do.  Also at the same time, did the RAM upgrades.
  • Reply 3 of 31
    I've done this with both my previous 2012 and my current 2014, I like your tutorial. I highly recommend this upgrade. Today a 1TB SSD can be had for $150 or so, and 2TB for $300. It is just such a clear upgrade, especially for an OS that chokes under hard disk access load.
     
  • Reply 4 of 31
    Mike WuertheleMike Wuerthele Posts: 4,345administrator
    I've done this with both my previous 2012 and my current 2014, I like your tutorial. I highly recommend this upgrade. Today a 1TB SSD can be had for $150 or so, and 2TB for $300. It is just such a clear upgrade, especially for an OS that chokes under hard disk access load.
     
    It helps with VM page-outs too.
  • Reply 5 of 31
    EVEN EASIER! Just copy your OS to an SSD in an external USB case with Carbon Copy Cloner and then use it as a start-up drive. I recommend a 500gb SSD. In either case be sure to keep plenty of drive space available for system operations. This method gives you substantially faster start up time both for system startups and apps. The best part is you don't have to take your computer apart! I've been doing this since the MacPlus as it was easier to travel with a hard drive than a desktop in the days before Laptops.
    SpamSandwich
  • Reply 6 of 31
    Mike WuertheleMike Wuerthele Posts: 4,345administrator
    fangoo said:
    EVEN EASIER! Just copy your OS to an SSD in an external USB case with Carbon Copy Cloner and then use it as a start-up drive. I recommend a 500gb SSD. In either case be sure to keep plenty of drive space available for system operations. This method gives you substantially faster start up time both for system startups and apps. The best part is you don't have to take your computer apart! I've been doing this since the MacPlus as it was easier to travel with a hard drive than a desktop in the days before Laptops.
    While this is easier, we don't recommend it for optimal performance. Even if you get a UASP case, the data transfer rate is faster internal, then external.

    However, an external case would be good for a removed drive.
    fastasleep
  • Reply 7 of 31
    I also did this to two MAC mini's and also my MAC desktop....a 2 TB drive and 32 gig RAM....my MAC and my Mini's are smokin fast!!! Great upgrade!
  • Reply 8 of 31
    There is no reason for this. Just put that 16GB memory (maximum) into it. If you have Mac Mini Server that came with two 1TB drives then you have a lot of reliable storage that does not need boost and maximum RAM will improve it very much. You can even run two macOS installations (two High Sierra or High Sierra and Mojave) to compare. One of comparisons is that introduction of APFS damaged iTunes visibility of iPhones meaning if you do not force it APFS (even if it is not SSD drive) then iTunes will not see your iPhone anymore (macOS sees it so Photo works fine, but not iTunes). No it is not newer version of iTunes or macOS that fixes this - it is just file system conversion that seems to be fixing this. Apple needs to test their software better and stop forcing people to upgrade hardware by buying newer Mac's. There is nothing wrong with older Mac's. The OS suffers from lack of testing quality issues which was not the case in Jobs' times.
  • Reply 9 of 31
    When I replaced the SSD in a MacBook Air, the OS allowed me to rebuild the boot volume; no Carbon Copy required. Is this not possible here, if you don't care about content other than the OS?
  • Reply 10 of 31
    Mike WuertheleMike Wuerthele Posts: 4,345administrator
    There is no reason for this. Just put that 16GB memory (maximum) into it. If you have Mac Mini Server that came with two 1TB drives then you have a lot of reliable storage that does not need boost and maximum RAM will improve it very much. You can even run two macOS installations (two High Sierra or High Sierra and Mojave) to compare. One of comparisons is that introduction of APFS damaged iTunes visibility of iPhones meaning if you do not force it APFS (even if it is not SSD drive) then iTunes will not see your iPhone anymore (macOS sees it so Photo works fine, but not iTunes). No it is not newer version of iTunes or macOS that fixes this - it is just file system conversion that seems to be fixing this. Apple needs to test their software better and stop forcing people to upgrade hardware by buying newer Mac's. There is nothing wrong with older Mac's. The OS suffers from lack of testing quality issues which was not the case in Jobs' times.
    Two 1TB hard drives in striped RAID are less than half the speed of one SATA SSD. Different use cases for different folks.

    APFS arrived well before the iTunes revision to strip out app management, and prior to the removal, app management from iTunes on a APFS drive worked fine, so I'm not sure where you're going with that.

    And, if you think that there wasn't software testing problems when Jobs was in charge, you are profoundly deluded.
    edited January 31 fastasleeppscooter63macxpressmacguirazorpitshamino
  • Reply 11 of 31
    Mike WuertheleMike Wuerthele Posts: 4,345administrator

    leehamm said:
    When I replaced the SSD in a MacBook Air, the OS allowed me to rebuild the boot volume; no Carbon Copy required. Is this not possible here, if you don't care about content other than the OS?
    If you don't care about content other than the OS, then you don't need Carbon Copy Cloner!
  • Reply 12 of 31
    Proof of concept 2011 mini with 1tb ssd, 2tb TM HD, 16GB ram, discrete graphics and all is well...
    Here's hoping we get a price adjustment and a VEGA discrete graphics option next Tuesday now that the financial quarter is off the monkey's back!
  • Reply 13 of 31
    Mike WuertheleMike Wuerthele Posts: 4,345administrator
    Proof of concept 2011 mini with 1tb ssd, 2tb TM HD, 16GB ram, discrete graphics and all is well...
    Here's hoping we get a price adjustment and a VEGA discrete graphics option next Tuesday now that the financial quarter is off the monkey's back!
    I think that there is zero chance of a price adjustment. A Vega option is possible, I suppose, but not likely.
  • Reply 14 of 31
    ivanhivanh Posts: 295member
    It’s tempting to upgrade my Mac Mini 2012. But my biggest doubt is the risk of no further macOS upgrade, like the MacBook Pro 2011. It also implies the asynchronous versions of native apps among iOS devices, macOS Macs and iCloud. 
    razorpit
  • Reply 15 of 31
    I’ve never used a cloner, I just use Time Machine.
  • Reply 16 of 31
    GG1GG1 Posts: 235member
    Excellent article, and timely for me. I have the 2012 Mini with Fusion drive.

    Are there any precautions when cloning a Fusion drive?

    Edit: this is why I ask:
    edited February 1
  • Reply 17 of 31
    Thanks for the article.

    I have a 2014 Mac Mini with a Fusion Drive.  I only have the system and a few other files I use daily on that drive: total about 122GB. Other files, videos, photos are kept on two external hard drives. (multi-TB) 

    Would my setup benefit from going all-in with an SSD for the main drive, as this article explains how to do? I do web development all day, every day.

  • Reply 18 of 31
    I've done this to several Mac Minis from ~2011 that went end-of-life at my old company. Their RAM maxes out at 8GB, but they're still snappy little machines with an SSD, and still running strong today. I created a bootable USB drive to install OSX (lots of articles out there on how to do this). If you're upgrading an older one, just make sure to use the latest version of OSX your Mac Mini supports. I think Mojave was the first upgrade they weren't eligible for—not bad.
  • Reply 19 of 31
    Good upgrade for those of us that refuse to pay Apple’s ‘Pro’ prices.
  • Reply 20 of 31
    Mike WuertheleMike Wuerthele Posts: 4,345administrator
    SamWebb said:
    Thanks for the article.

    I have a 2014 Mac Mini with a Fusion Drive.  I only have the system and a few other files I use daily on that drive: total about 122GB. Other files, videos, photos are kept on two external hard drives. (multi-TB) 

    Would my setup benefit from going all-in with an SSD for the main drive, as this article explains how to do? I do web development all day, every day.

    Fusion drives are a decent compromise. Replacing the drive with a SSD will make ALL I/O tasks faster, not just the ones that macOS thinks needs to be faster. So, the absolute speed increase for you will depend a great deal on how much you bounce around to different apps and tasks.

    In short, it will be faster. How much will vary.
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